It was back in the late 1980s when I, a young teenager then, visited my Syrian side of the family. In the garden of a family member’s villa, a group of us, all teenagers, gathered late at night and started telling jokes. The Syrians love the Egyptian sense of humour and jokes, and so I was always asked to tell them the “latest jokes” of my home country. At some point, one of my jokes started with “Mubarak, Assad, and Reagan …” I was violently shushed and shoved inside the house. One of my older cousins led us inside, closed the door and windows of a top-floor room, and said I could now tell the joke. They explained to me that if one of the neighbours or the “garbage man” heard us telling a joke on Assad, we would be detained and never heard of again. They then started telling me stories of acquaintances who “disappeared” as a consequence of passing comments on Assad, being snitched on by colleagues at work or at school, some were even family members. One particular story shocked me at the time, was of a 10 year old girl who was eating a sandwich at her school break, the sandwich was wrapped in a newspaper page which had Assad’s picture on it. The girl unwrapped her sandwich and threw the paper in the garbage…she was told on by her teacher and was taken along with her father and never were seen again.
My Assad joke incident was just a few years after the 1982 Hama massacre when the then-militant Muslim Brotherhood rose against the Assad regime. Hundreds attacked the homes of government officials and police posts, killing some 70 leading Ba’athists and proclaiming Hama a “liberated city”, urging Syrians to rise up against the “infidel”.
The Syrian army retaliated heavily and without mercy on all Hama residents regardless of their affiliation or involvement in the attacks; it besieged the city for 27 days. According to Amnesty International, the military bombed the old city center from the air while tanks demolished buildings during the first four days. For the following three weeks, the army forces continued shelling the city with artillery. Estimated death toll varied from 10 thousand to 25 thousand, mostly civilians. The government also expelled over a hundred thousand of its citizens, and bombed tunnels civilians were attempting to escape through. House-to-house searches were performed and mass arrests followed.
According to eye witnesses who were interviewed by Amnesty in their 30th commemoration of the massacre, the military called for a pro-government rally after the three weeks of shelling. Those who stayed in their homes and did not join the demonstration were killed by the security forces.
State-controlled media, according to the New York Times, expressed support for Assad and denounced the Muslim Brotherhood. The Syrian press agency said the Muslim Brotherhood ”pounced on our comrades while sleeping in their homes and killed whomever they could kill of women and children, mutilating the bodies of the martyrs in the streets, driven, like mad dogs, by their black hatred. Government and party security forces taught the murderers a lesson that has snuffed out their breath.’ No mention of the thousands of innocent civilians killed during said “lesson”. The propaganda machine performed as expected.
Naturally, world leaders started protesting against the killing of thousands of civilians during the army raids on the militant Islamists. And the clichéd response was given: Denouncing interference in the country’s affairs, and saying it was “stamping out criminal elements in a clean-up operation in Hama”.
The Islamist uprising was indeed quelled but the murder of thousands of civilians remained in the hearts and minds of Syrians, specially that the Assad regime hardened its clutch over people after the massacre. Freedoms gone completely over time, and even a teenager’s joke was a threat to their lives and the lives of their families.
In that ominous trip to Syria, which was not my first or last, but was the most eye-opening, I noticed the large statues of Assad in every square, the pictures of him everywhere; on taxis, buses and private cars. I noticed how there is no media but that which hails the president. I noticed how everyone was afraid of everyone; how informers were everywhere including university colleagues and street vendors. The mere mention of the Hama massacre was punishable by anything from prison to torture to death.
Bashaar Al Assad continued the oppressive measures his father had taken, although he did manage to liberate the economy a little, but since his government, advisers and the ruling party remained unchanged, political life in Syria remained the same as well. Until the uprising in 2011, which Bashaar attempted to brutally quash in the same manner his father did 30 years ago in Hama, but this eventually led to the current civil war crisis and the Islamists’ vicious insurgence. The most horrendous of militant Islamists have flocked to Syria (and Iraq) to fight what they regard as a “holy war”. Those who had fled Syria after Hafez al Assad’s ferocious termination of the Islamists’ insurgence and those who went into hiding, came back now in full force, along with their terrorist groups.
Now, in Egypt, the Syrian war example is always the “go to” answer to anyone who objects to the regime’s oppression, mass surveillance, mass death sentences, and random mass arrests. Egyptians got used to such a reply until it became a bitter joke that only draws frustration and anger.
In current Egypt, much like Syria in the past few decades, people are being watched. On top of the thousands killed by security forces since the revolution began in 2011, and the over 40 thousand political detainee in Egyptian prisons and the mass death sentences given, the government is moving forward with plans to make sure no one ever speaks up again. It has implemented a project for mass surveillance of Egyptians’ online activities, a tweet can be criminalized. It is also working on creating its informers of what they call “patriotic college students” to inform on their colleagues (one of the “crimes” mentioned is distributing flyers with political content). A new police department is being created made up of 18-year olds, with no education in police work or the law, to roam the streets and arrest anyone they regard as “breaking the law” – knowing that holding a banner can land one in jail and “insulting the judiciary” can result in a travel ban. Also a look at the Egyptian media situation makes it very clear that only those who support the regime are safe, otherwise Egypt is becoming notorious for jailing journalists.
We are indeed better than Syria in its current state, but what made Syria come to this except its regime’s brutality and oppression?
Rana Allam is an Egyptian journalist and former Editor in Chief of Daily News Egypt newspaper